As we eagerly anticipate Merit’s fifth annual Play On benefit concert, we sat down with our headliners The JuJu Exchange to chat about the invaluable lessons they learned at Merit that inform their music today, the formative memories and connections they made, and the importance of music to enact social change.
Musical Beginnings at Merit
The JuJu Exchange is comprised of three Merit alums with a long history of creating music together, dating back to their days in the Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory 15 years ago: Nico Segal, Julian Davis Reid and Nova Zaii. Performing around the world, the band’s work is primarily instrumental and stylistically adventurous, designed to imbue their listeners with a sense of hope, connection, and wonder through music. All three musicians shared not only about their music and musical process, but how their time at Merit instilled in them lessons far beyond a strong musical background.
Musically inclined since childhood, Nico learned to play several instruments including percussion before switching to his primary instrument, the trumpet, in 6th grade. But it wasn’t until his first Merit program the summer before his freshman year in high school that he discovered the motivation and discipline needed to spur his growth as a musician. “The profound realization that hard work equals results was the first major lesson that Merit gave me,” he recalls. Through private study with the late Michael McLaughlin and performing in brass ensemble, Nico was exposed to a wide, diverse range of musical styles while forging invaluable relationships with his mentors and peers that last to this day.
Julian started playing piano at age four. At eight, he was invited to join Merit’s Conservatory, studying beside middle- and high-schoolers. His interest in classical piano began to wane, however, until performing in jazz band reignited his passion for music. He remembers Merit as a place where he felt the “right kind of pressure” to embrace discipline and hard work without pressuring him to conform to a specific idea of what a life in music should look like. “Merit was a space where music was a love; it didn’t become a chore,” he says. “I’m thankful that music remained a site of joy, curiosity, discovery and fellowship, and not a site of guilt or fear.”
Julian’s younger brother, Nova Zaii, remembers Merit being a part of his life from an early age, and some of his strongest memories come from watching the older students. “I remember the first time I heard the Latin jazz band Julian and Nico were playing in when I was 10,” he says. “I remember getting chills; it was the first time that I felt like that outside of singing in the gospel choir at church. I just felt so much vitality and belief in that sound that I was moved as a 10-year-old.” He started drum lessons in 5th grade, where he learned much that he still utilizes in his own playing as well as passing those lessons on to his students.
For all three, Merit’s atmosphere of collaboration and community stands out as unique and powerful. “In the jazz world, there’s a sort of jazz bravado that’s very palpable in many rooms,” Nico says. “Merit was always a place where we never felt that type of competition against each other in an unhealthy way. There was always a real spirit of, we’re all getting better. We’re all learning stuff. We’re all on our journeys.” This sense of shared purpose and cooperation enabled the students to learn from each other and push each other to grow.
Nova shared one of his most influential moments from his time at Merit that beautifully encapsulates this environment of collaboration: “I have this very fond memory of me and Nico at the piano in a practice room upstairs. Nico was like ‘man, let’s write a song,’ and we just sat down together at the piano. We just worked on chords, and the simplicity of it stayed with me, but also the affirmation that the chords that I was bringing to the table sounded cool. It was almost like the inception of what we’re doing now as adults, writing songs. It was just a very pure, pure moment.”
Cultural Exchange and Social Change
For The JuJu Exchange, making music is intrinsically tied to their belief in a higher power, a sense of interconnectedness, and a broader passion for social justice. They hope to inspire their listeners to “participate in the kinds of exchange that the world desperately needs,” emphasizing the importance of the arts to create meaningful change.
They experienced this exchange in a variety of ways throughout their musical journeys. Nova remembers learning drumstick grips from different cultures, experimenting with integrating different styles to create the right mood for each piece of music.
Julian cites the class where he learned to transcribe jazz solos from recordings as a particularly influential experience in forming his worldview. “We’re transcribing for good and for bad all the time, and then telling others to transcribe for good and for bad all the time. Telling people what to copy, what to imitate.” His transcription skills have unexpectedly come into play as a new father, studying and listening deeply to the sounds his daughter makes, asking “what is her song?” to strengthen that profound connection.
For Nico, music’s capacity to give voice to those often silenced and to help people gain insight into themselves is of utmost importance:
I look at music very much as a political statement. Young people are often skipped over in those conversations, but we’ve seen how young people can be leaders, and I think music—in particular—is an incredible space to bear witness to the power that young people actually have.
Instrumental music has a power to it and a depth to it that words could never scratch the surface of, and I think the study of music is an incredible exploration of the self as a young person while you’re trying to navigate all this crazy stuff in your life. Your instrument can be a vessel for that exploration and can be your way of getting through a tough time and throwing yourself into your study and into the practice of something that brings you joy and that brings you clarity, brings your life clarity that gives you purpose.
Building a Legacy
Whether coming home to teach masterclasses at the Joy Faith Knapp Music Center, performing at City Winery at a fundraiser, or creating a collaborative art piece for the school, the members of The JuJu Exchange have been ardent supporters and ambassadors for Merit.
In addition, Julian is a proud member of the Merit Associate Board, joining out of a desire to “continue giving to the next generation of musicians,” he says. “The next generation of musicians who are going on to be professionals in other fields but are living a life with music, and then certainly to the next generation of Black musicians who are coming through Merit’s doors.”
Julian presented Nico with the Award for Citizen Artistry at Merit’s Gala 2023.
He provides a unique perspective to the board, as both a working musician and a Merit alum. “Institutions are only as strong as their memory. By virtue of the fact that I was there 15 years ago, I can speak to what was then. By virtue of being involved now, I can help shape what’s going forward.” Through his position on the board, Julian also sees the way Merit continues to evolve as we expand programming, diversify faculty, and partner with organization around the city to remove barriers to music education.
His passion for the work Merit is doing is why he’s most excited to perform at Play On 2023: “I am thankful to be able to play for current members of the Merit community: donors, friends of Merit, Merit faculty and staff, and of course Merit students,” Julian says.